Carl Clemons-Hopkins is no overnight success.
After over a decade in the business, the veteran stage actor had their mainstream breakthrough this year with Hacks, the HBO comedy that earned 15 Emmy nominations, including one for Clemons-Hopkins in Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.
Clemons-Hopkins is the first openly nonbinary Emmy nominee in history, and it comes at a time of increased conversation about the presence of gendered acting categories at major awards shows. Recently, The Gotham Awards announced gender-neutral categories for their ceremony next year and the Television Academy, responsible for the Emmys, said that any winner could change their credit on a trophy from “actor” or “actress” to “performer.”
For Clemons-Hopkins, being at the forefront of this new frontier is not something they take lightly. As the career-driven, stoic Marcus on Hacks, Clemons-Hopkins devotes every ounce of time and resource to Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), but off screen, they’re ready to step out of the shadows.
Daniel Trainor spoke to Clemons-Hopkins about other awards bodies shifting to gender-neutral categories, hopes for Marcus in season 2 and what they’re hoping to bring to the Emmys red carpet.
Daniel Trainor: First of all, congratulations on such an exciting year. When you think about where you were 8 months ago, how has this rush of success impacted your life?
Carl Clemons-Hopkins: Well, thank you for your kind words, first of all. It has been quite a whirlwind. I don’t really know if I have the right words to express the craziness. It’s mostly been very positive. I’m very grateful for it. It’s been decades in this profession and in this industry. It’s a nice moment, but at the same time I know these eight months are not going to be every eight months of my career. So, I’m trying to take it all in stride and learn as much as I can because I’m very new to the west coast and relatively new to television. I’m taking as many notes as possible.
Trainor: Recently, you wrote about the work you’ve done in studying the origins of masculinity. What exactly has that involved and what have you learned throughout that process?
Clemons-Hopkins: A lot of it was about researching and understanding the connection between gender normativity, hetero normativity, racism, classism and capitalism. A lot of it is fashion and protection. How you want to look, how you want to protect yourself against other people, the posturings and behaviors of any being in danger or in need. Once you get out of that, you start to really understand how much of this is leftover from the anchors of white supremacy and the anchors of profit-making. When one really takes the time to understand the origins of these things, it’s a never-ending thing. I read somewhere that “understanding one’s gender queerness doesn’t mean you have an answer to gender, it just means you have a lifetime of questions.” I would encourage anybody to definitely do research for themselves, definitely try to break down who told them what and why that person knew that to be true. I’m very interested in breaking curses in the black queer imagination. The black queer imagination often comes against so many perils and lies. For our own personal liberation, it’s just necessary to do that work.
Trainor: You’ve said that being more secure in your own identity allows you to be more free on screen. Do you think we’ll see even more of that in your performance next season?
Clemons-Hopkins: I would hope so. For me, I felt so much pressure being assigned male at birth and also being a larger person. Most of my life, there was so much about what I should and shouldn’t do. I found that I was bringing my own, for lack of a better term, neuroses to work. It’s so much easier when I don’t have to do that. You’re already there to play one character, you don’t want to double your labor by having all of these other things fueling your anxiety. I don’t know what will happen specifically with Hacks. I don’t know where the creators are pitching Marcus’s journey just yet, but my hope is that future roles can explore some of those expressions of understanding, on either side. In a lot of my work right now, I find myself sometimes playing people who aren’t necessarily afraid of themselves, but they’re not putting self-exploration at the top of their list.
Trainor: Marcus is a pretty straight-laced guy in a sea of huge personalities. Do you hope we might get to see him loosen up his collar a little bit in Season 2?
Clemons-Hopkins: Yeah! All I know is that he has to get up off of that couch. His mom has to leave. Maybe he goes and dives into working deeper. Maybe he takes a trip! I don’t know.
Trainor: I’m curious about the relationship you have with Jean Smart. On screen, it’s such a specific give-and-take sort of relationship. Is it difficult to shut off that dynamic when cameras aren’t rolling?
Clemons-Hopkins: I think the only difficulty we had was to stop joking and enjoying each other when the cameras started rolling. It was helpful that Marcus and Deborah’s relationship is a working relationship. I have the utmost respect for Jean as an artist, a co-worker, a friend, the whole thing. With the exception of some scenes of conflict, that was the easiest to go in-and-out of, I think, because of what we developed as the characters’ relationship and how we got to know each other over the course of the season.
Trainor: As you know, there has been momentum behind the idea of gender-neutral acting categories at awards shows. The Gotham Awards have adopted them for next year. What do you think about that and are you hopeful that other awards bodies will follow suit?
Clemons-Hopkins: I’m hoping all entities follow suit. My hope is that people take the time and the consideration and the counsel of different people to understand what and why the task is. I hope to not offend anyone, but I still see “actor” as a trade term. They/she/he is an actor. It’s a profession. It’s been interesting in finding out how the inclusion of the term “actress” was brought in. I have no issue with retaining that term for women who want to be celebrated as an “actress.” To answer your question, I have only recently begun considering expanding terminology when it comes to award shows and what not. I just hope that everyone does the right thing and takes counsel and considers it for the right reason. I don’t think anyone is helped by temporary scratch-out/write-in, temporary things to appease some people and moving on. No, it has to come with a structural re-understanding of what it is we’re here to do, and hopefully it is to serve, to give and to honor everyone, not just to put a Band-Aid on the issue of the day.
Trainor: On that note, we’re a month away from the Emmys. Have you given any thought to what you’re going to wear?
Clemons-Hopkins: I’ve given it a copious amount of thought. I don’t know what queer individual would not!
Trainor: Yes! Okay, walk me through the process.
Clemons-Hopkins: What I know right now is that I don’t necessarily want to dress up like some guy. I also don’t necessarily need to be going as some lady. So, I don’t know! I’m getting a team together. We’re going to figure out something, hopefully, androgynous and fun. Maybe cosplay involved in the situation. I’m not sure. What I do know is that I aim to be comfortable and I aim to enjoy myself.
Trainor: Oh, I very much respect that. Where are we in the process of putting together Season 2? What can you tell me?
Clemons-Hopkins: What I can tell you is that we will be starting to shoot…soon. They are writing. That is actually all that I know.
Trainor: Listen, I’ll take it. Let’s just hope we get Marcus off that couch.
Clemons-Hopkins: We need to get him off the couch! Unless it’s a season of just him on the couch eating chips.
Trainor: That would make your job a lot easier!
Clemons-Hopkins: I have the acting chops to pull that off. I know I can. Get some soda involved. Maybe some ice cream.
Trainor: It sounds like you’re describing my last year-and-a-half.
Clemons-Hopkins: (laughs) Quite honestly.
Carl Clemons-Hopkins is nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series and has submitted the episode “New Eyes” of Hacks for Emmy consideration.
Photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO Max